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NorthKey's new CEO brings a balanced focus

March 1, 2009
by Brian Albright
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NorthKey's new chief executive blends clinical and financial skills

Owen t. nichols, psydWhen changes in Kentucky's pension system prompted the retirement of the CEO and other key executives at NorthKey Community Care in Northern Kentucky, the organization lost some of its most experienced staff. Luckily, the agency gained an equally experienced chief executive when the Northern Kentucky Mental Health-Mental Retardation Regional Board appointed Owen T. Nichols, PsyD, as the new CEO and president last year. “I knew NorthKey had a good reputation and a strong service-delivery model,” recalls Dr. Nichols, who retired as associate executive director and clinical director from Kentucky's Western State Hospital earlier in 2008 after serving for 21 years at the facility, which has 222 psychiatric beds, 144 skilled nursing beds, and 30 substance abuse beds.

Dr. Nichols says the economic climate will be the biggest initial challenge in his new role. “The mental health system in the state has been significantly underfunded for the past several years, and it's been over a decade since there has been an increase in fees or reimbursements,” he explains. “At the same time, the number of individuals served has continued to increase. We provide an average of about $1 million in uncompensated services annually, and the state has implemented a 2% budget cut this year.”

Dr. Nichols and his executive team are traveling across NorthKey's eight-county region to personally visit each facility's staff. NorthKey also is investigating avenues for funding a youth residential substance abuse facility. “There is a significant need for that in this area,” he points out.

Dr. Nichols also is focusing on allocating services across the blend of rural and urban areas that NorthKey serves. “We have to balance our services to make sure the rural areas in our region don't feel left out because of the intense demand in some of the urban areas,” he explains. “We want to reach a point where we can deploy the clinicians more easily across the system when demand is greater than the resources we have in any of the clinics or offices.”

Dr. Nichols' interest in psychology and mental health stems from his experiences as a youth. A Kentucky native, Dr. Nichols says his family struggled financially after his father lost his job, and the stress prompted his mother to seek help from a psychologist at a community mental health center.

“I would say that was the glue that ended up holding our family together, and really helped us through that crisis,” he notes. “That's really what lead me in the direction of becoming a psychologist and ultimately ending up working with a community mental health center.”

Dr. Nichols has received a number of accolades during his career. The Kentucky Psychological Association named him Psychologist of the Year in 2004, and the state Department for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addiction Services recognized him as an Outstanding Mental Health Administrator in 2001. But he says that the accomplishment he is most proud of is his ability to balance the sometimes conflicting financial and clinical demands of managing a mental health facility.

“There are often clear lines in organizations between the business end and clinical end of the operation,” says Dr. Nichols, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Forest Institute's School of Professional Psychology and an MBA from Amberton University. “In order for the system to be most effective at delivering services, you have to have people in charge with a background in both arenas. I have always tried to blend those two areas and bring a balance to the clinical and business operations, rather than having them compete with one another.”

Brian Albright is a freelance writer. Photographer: Susan Bartels. Behavioral Healthcare 2009 March;29(3):72